Chapter 1: Legends Don’t Burn Down Villages
Have you ever opened your eyes and found yourself somewhere you never intended to be? Yeah, I know exactly what that’s like. Been there a few times. This time, however, meant waking up with my hands bound in the back of an imperial cart of all things. Just my luck. Master thief my ass.
“Hey you, you’re finally awake.” The man opposite openly said, “You were trying to cross the border, right? Walked right into that imperial ambush, same as us, and that thief over there.” With a nudge of his head I felt compelled to look at the other man, a feeble little man, his brown hair swept back over his head. He would have looked suave if it weren’t for the dirt on his face… And the ragged tunic… And the fact that he was also tied up.
“Damn you Stormcloaks. Skyrim was fine until you came along. Empire was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I could’ve stolen that horse and been halfway to Hammerfell.” He turned to look at me. “You there. You and me – we shouldn’t be here. It’s these Stormcloaks the Empire wants.” He said, with a hint of fear in his tone. The Stormcloak picked up on it and called out, sarcastically; “We’re all brothers and sisters in binds now, thief” and allowed a smirk to appear on his face. It was at this point the Soldier driving the cart turned and pierced the air with a quick reminder of who we now were. Prisoners.
“Shut up back there!” he shouted. Simple enough… But it destroys one’s feeling of happiness and most of all takes away the last freedom we seemed to have. Speech.
Everyone on the cart seemed to take it in for a moment, before the Thief quietly said, while hinting towards another person.
“What’s wrong with him, huh?” With this I turned to my right to see a man sat there, leaning forwards as if in shame. Fully robed in grey furs, probably wolf pelt, with mail leggings and a sharp face, long golden hair thrown back over his head, and most peculiarly, his mouth was bound, unlike ours. It was as if they had taken it as a precaution. As if they feared his very voice.
“Watch your tongue! You’re speaking to Ulfric Stormcloak, the true High King!” The other prisoner snapped.
“Ulfric? The Jarl of Windhelm? You’re the leader of the rebellion… But if they’ve captured you…” With this, the thief’s face turned from confusion to sheer panic “Oh gods! Where are they taking us?!”
With this, the Stormcloak’s head lowered. “I don’t know where we’re going, but Sovngarde awaits.”
The thief was now in a state of complete shock, his face a mix of emotions, his eyes darting about looking for an escape as he stuttered
“No, this can’t be happening, this isn’t happening.”
The Stormcloak, with a look of sadness creeping across his face turned to the thief.
“Hey, what village are you from horse thief?”
“Why do you care?” The thief snapped.
“A Nord’s last thoughts should be of home” came the reply.
“Rorikstead. I’m… I’m from Rorikstead” A moment of silence spread through the group as we each took our thoughts to our homes… And our families. I remember desperately trying to remember the faces of my parents, but alas I could not. I was taken into an orphanage at the age of 6, both my parents killed by a group of bandits. One of the last things I remember of them was the blatant lie my father told me as he drew his steel sword. “We’ll be fine, son. I promise, we will survive this”. I hid myself in the cellar and the next thing I knew, I heard a call from our chief that the village was safe, any survivors were ordered to step outside into the open. At age 6 you do that sort of thing, without a question. At age 36 you fight your way out. It was an ambush to save the bandits the effort of searching the homes, and most everyone fell into their net. I was lucky. My parents were not. My mother was raped and finally her throat slit before the eyes of the entire village, my father was killed while trying to save her. They turned to me and I just ran, ducking this way and that, attempting to simply out run them and by some miracle did so. I hid for days before eventually being found by some passing traders who took me to the nearest orphanage. Honourhall, in Riften. Hell on Earth, but we’ll cover that later.
“General Tullius, sir! The headsman is waiting!” an Imperial called from within the settlement we were now approaching. Tullius replied heartlessly.
“Good, let’s get this over with.”
The thief’s face was once more a panic and awash with fear.
“Shor, Mara, Dibella, Kynareth, Akatosh. Divines, please help me!”
We rolled slowly into the settlement, passing the great oak exterior gates and into a small cobbled road that passed through the small fortress, any settlers that were on looking were filled with a mix of anger, fear, sadness and the occasional child simply wishing to watch the soldiers.
“Look at him, General Tullius the Military Governor. And it looks like the Thalmor are with him. Damn elves. I bet they had something to do with this.” With a look of hate in his eye he glanced quickly over the present Thalmor and then shook it off before looking back to me. “This is Helgen. I used to be sweet on a girl from here. Wonder if Vilod is still making that mead with Juniper Berries mixed in.” He smirked. “Funny, when I was a boy, Imperial walls and towers used to make me feel so safe.”
We passed through a narrow point in the road into a large courtyard where the first of our convoy pulled up. To their left, we pulled up.
“Why are we stopping?” said the thief quickly.
“Why do you think? End of the line.” With that he stood, we all followed suit. “Let’s go, shouldn’t keep the gods waiting for us”.
“No, wait! We’re not rebels!” shouted the thief
“Face your death with some courage, thief!” snapped the Stormcloak.
“You’ve got to tell them! We weren’t with you! This is a mistake!”
A Captain walked up in front of the crowd of prisoners.
“Step towards the block when we say your name. One at a time!”
I glanced over to the Stormcloak who looked at the floor and mockingly whispered
“Empire loves their damned lists”. This brought a smile to my face. May as well look for something to laugh at, right? A soldier came forward with a ledger – evidently filled with the names of the prisoners… Or maybe just the content of his wardrobe. We shall never know.
“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm”. The robed man stepped forward, and towards to headsman’s block.
“It has been an honour, Jarl Ulfric!” called the Stormcloak after him.
“Ralof of Riverwood.” With that, the Stormcloak who had been with us the entire time stepped forward. Ralof – that was his name, a good man if ever I met one.
“Lokir of Rorikstead.” The thief starting shaking.
“No, I’m not a rebel! You can’t do this!” With this he bolted, he sprinted away from the crowd, towards the way we came in.
“HALT!” came a cry from the Captain. He didn’t listen and just carried on running.
“You’re not gonna kill me!” The man had evidently lost it, but he didn’t care, he was too busy focussing on getting out.
“ARCHERS!” With that, two archers drew and fired. Both arrows found their target and Lokir found the floor, he died instantly. The Captain returned her gaze to the crowd. “Anyone else feel like running?” she shouted. The soldier with the ledger glanced at me, and then to the book.
“Wait. You there, step forward.” So I did. I walked slowly towards the soldier, now starting to feel a little worried. Something was wrong but there was nothing I could do about it. Each step I took was taking me one step closer to being killed by that damnable Captain. Well, either her or the headsman. “Take your pick” I thought to myself, before smiling a little. The soldier and the Captain both seemed to glance at the same time with the same expression, trying to not laugh at that was torture.
“Who are you?” he asked. I looked him in the eye before stepping close to him, my beard nearly touching his chin. Leaving a pause for good effect I released a breath into his face, evidently pretty bad, I smiled a little before slowly blinking.
“Remus.” I whispered.
Trying to regain some sort of power he stepped back before looking at me inquisitively,
“You’re a long way from the Imperial City. What are you doing in Skyrim?”
So I’m an Imperial, does that matter? By the nine, I was raised in Honourhall – not all Imperials live in Cyrodiil! Bloody idiot. He looked to the Captain, evidently confused as to what I was doing there.
“Captain, what should we do? He’s not on the list.”
“Forget the list, he goes to the block.”
“By your orders, Captain.”
Now that surprised me, I thought the Imperial Soldiers were the forgiving and omnibenevolent workers of the Emperor, not some blood thirsty murderers. Oh, believe me, at this point I was just about ready to drop my allegiance. Bastards.
“I’m sorry, we’ll make sure your remains are returned to Cyrodiil.” Said the Soldier. I mean, come on, you have no idea if I live in Cyrodiil, let alone if I have any family there. Just adding insult to injury here. I may be Imperial, but Skyrim is my home. I wasn’t born here, but it’s my home.
“Follow the Captain prisoner.” Came the soldier’s final order. Fear took over me again, was I really about to die? Just for crossing the border at the wrong time? I walked after the Captain, regrouping with the crowd of prisoners, and just as I reached the group, Tullius stepped up to Ulfric as if about to fight him. It would have been funny if not for the fact that Ulfric was tied and gagged, he made Tullius look like a boy in comparison. Tullius was a small, well-built man, his armour decorating him like fine jewellery, it had clearly never seen direct combat – if it had, Tullius had received not even a scratch upon it, the mark of either a fine warrior or a coward.
“Ulfric Stormcloak. Some here in Helgen call you a hero. But a hero doesn’t use a power like the Voice to murder is king and usurp his throne.”
The Voice – I had no idea what this really was, I’d heard of it before as a child, the Book of the Dragonborn had mentioned it, but I never saw it as any more than just a made up story, a myth created to scare children and inspire young soldiers. It was something for me to try and find out about, if I ever got out of this situation.
“You started this war! Plunged Skyrim into chaos, and now the Empire is going to put you down, and restore the peace!” Shouted Tullius in his face, Ulfric was clearly now angry, but with the gags over his mouth the most he could do to protest was grumble which achieved only more humiliation as opposed to intimidation. Just as Tullius finished his glory speech a call of some kind was heard in the distance, a call from what was unknown, but it drew the attention of every person present.
“What was that?” timidly asked the soldier with the ledger.
“It’s nothing. Carry on.” Ordered Tullius.
“Yes, General Tullius!” replied the Captain, now stood by a priestess at the headsman’s block. “Give them their last rites.” She said to the priestess.
“As we commend your souls to Aetherius, blessings of the eight divines upon you-” she was interrupted by a Stormcloak stepping towards the block.
“For the love of Talos, shut up and let’s get this over with!”
“As you wish.” She replied, a little disgruntled, clearly insulted by the interruption
“Come on! I haven’t got all morning!” he shouted, the Captain stepping behind him, ready to push him to the block. As he fell to his knees he said calmly “My ancestors are smiling at me Imperials, can you say the same?” These were his last words. Words that ring in my head to this moment as I write this. I closed my eyes as the axe fell – a sign of respect for a friend. Shouts of abuse came from the Stormcloaks who were next in line, but I remained with my eyes shut, facing away.
“As fearless in death as he was in life.” Said Ralof, clearly thinking fondly of his now deceased brother in arms.
“Next, the renegade from Cyrodiil!” Ordered the Captain. Renegade? Now hold on a minute, I was chased for days away from my home by bandits -that is not what makes a man a renegade. Again, the same call was heard in the distance, this time a little louder. The same soldier piped up.
“There it is again. Did you hear that?”
“I said, next prisoner!” the Captain called.
“To the block prisoner, nice and easy.” Sickened I looked up at the Captain, spat at the ground and stepped forward, my eyes fixed upon hers. I glanced over at the soldier with the ledger, the only thing between us being a block of wood and a basket with a head in it. The Captain pushed me down and I rested my head on the block, turning to my left to watch the mountains – the same ones as I escaped to as a child. The headsman readied himself, lifting the axe in preparation for the swing. With this, a grand winged beast flew into eye shot, past the mountain I was watching, calling the same great roar we had heard before, now deafening in volume.
“What in Oblivion is that?!” Shouted Tullius, clearly terrified by the appearance of such a creature.
“Sentries, what do you see!” Called out the Captain, as the beast flew out of sight once more, behind a tower. Panic filled each person present, as a deafening roar filled the air once more, and a pause from all soldiers and Stormcloaks alike filled the air with terror. With that the great black beast landed atop the nearest tower and everyone filled with panic. All that could be heard was screams of “DRAGON!” as families ran for their loved ones and archers drew for a feeble attempt at shooting the monster down. Still on the block, I stared at the beast, fear in my eyes as it released a mighty roar, as if shouting at me, and with it came a mighty force sending me flying through the air only to land on the hard cobbles, hands bound, tunic torn and everything hurting.
“Hey, you! Get up! The gods won’t give us another chance!” Called Ralof from across the courtyard. With this I pulled myself to my feet, ignoring the searing pain in my limbs and sprinted to an open door within one of the towers, Ralof followed close behind and slammed the door shut as we got inside. Within was stood Jarl Ulfric and a few other wounded soldiers, everyone except Ulfric showing terror in their eyes.
“Jarl Ulfric! What is that thing? Could the legends be true?” Asked Ralof, hurriedly. Calm and collected, Ulfric replied simply with a single, poignant line.
“Legends don’t burn down villages.” He let it sink in for a moment, the seriousness of the situation now made clear to everyone present. “We need to move, now!” He barked at his men.
“Up through the tower, let’s go!” Ralof called to me. With that I just ran, sprinting 3 steps at a time I made my way up through the tower until reaching a Stormcloak amongst some rubble, desperately trying to move it in an attempt to escape.
“We just need to move some of these–”
It was too late, the beast had arrived. It punched through the wall of the tower with its great skull, the rubble and debris crushing the Stormcloak half to death. The dragon dropped back before letting out a breath of pure flame. With it I thought I heard a whisper of words, but dismissed it quickly. Without even a scream the Stormcloak died, and the fire receded. I took the opportunity to run to the new exit created by the great monster and Ralof was close behind.
“See the inn on the other side? Jump through the roof and keep going!” he said as he pointed towards a gaping hole in the thatching of a rugged old building, burning from dragon-fire. Without a second thought I found myself leaping from the tower, falling several feet through the thatching and into the burning inn.
Hurriedly I made my way through the inn, jumping over beds and dashing past the embers of roof beams. At the far end of the building was a hole in the roof, jumping down into it I found myself on the ground floor, the rooms behind me on the verge of collapse, food, drink and furniture thrown everywhere as the building began to buckle under its own weight. Out of the door I fled, out into the open once more, where the soldier who previously held the ledger now stood, calling to a child in the middle of the cobbled road.
“Haming, you need to get over here, now!” The soldier cried. The boy darted across the street, into an old man’s arms. “At-a-boy, you’re doing great. Gods, everyone get back!” With this, the leathery black wings of the beast could be heard drawing the creature to a halt, and then came another spout of fire. Jumping into the cover of the wreck of another building, the soldier turned to me.
“Still alive prisoner? Keep close to me if you want to stay that way. Gunmar, take care of the boy. I have to find General Tullius and join the defence.”
“Gods guide you, Hadvar” Gunmar called after him as he ran into the street, I followed closely, my hands still bound. I felt immensely vulnerable, staying close to strong man with a sword was the only way I was getting out of there. As we crossed the street there was a clear gap between a building and a tall wall.
“Stay close to the wall!” shouted Hadvar, as the dragon flew overhead, and circled back around for another pass. I obliged not out of respect for Hadvar but for the sake of self-preservation. Just as we reached the wall the dragon lowered itself and landed atop it, its great claws touching the ground from the top of the wall. Not a fight I wished to get into, certainly not a fight I was destined to win. With another bout of fire, it attacked a lone archer, burning the very life from his body. With no need for a further attack, it took off once more, into the sky, deflecting any arrows fired at it, and simultaneously destroying Helgen.
“Quickly! Follow me!” Shouted Hadvar, leading me through another demolished building, darting from pillar to post until reaching another cobbled road. Tullius stood among more soldiers before belting an order to him.
“Hadvar, into the keep soldier, we’re leaving!”
With a nod, Hadvar obliged, leading me through a great stone archway where we were met by none other than the Stormcloak whom I had earlier befriended. Ralof.
“Ralof, you damned traitor! Out of my way!”
“We’re escaping Hadvar, you’re not stopping us this time.” Replied Ralof, confidently, his energy fuelled by the adrenaline of battle.
“Fine, I hope that dragon takes you all to Sovngarde!”
As he said this line, the dragon swooped down only to grab an unfortunate Imperial archer, who was lifted hundreds of feet in the air before being released, only to helplessly fall to his doom amongst the rubble that was once Helgen.
“You, come on! Into the keep!” Cried Ralof, as he ran towards the keep’s entrance. I followed the man as we sprinted across another courtyard into the wooden doors of Helgen’s Keep.